Thursday, December 22, 2011

Review of Much Ado About Nothing with David Tennant and Catherine Tate

Epic win on the Christmas present front: my friends surprised me with a viewing of the Much Ado About Nothing "movie" last night. Complete and total surprise, because I didn't even know that it was released. But on to the review:

The first thing you should know is that it's set in the 1980s... which gets quite overpowering sometimes. The short shorts on guys, the stone-washed jeans, the obscene amount of pink on everything, the Lady Di reference, the Indiana Jones costume, the world's puffiest wedding dress, the Rubiks Cube, the cigarettes everywhere, the Thriller dancing, the cross-dressed costume... 'Nuf said.

David Tennant is brilliant as Benedick, of course. He handles Shakespeare's words so naturally that you forget that the language is supposed to be "old" and "hard to understand." (Side note: Shakespeare's language is not hard to understand or highbrow when done right... but with some actors you have an easier time remembering that than with others.) But perhaps his best moments comes when he pauses from the words themselves and just looks. The man speaks volumes with his facial expressions. He doesn't tend to go over the top, either. Benedick delivers one monologue entirely while sitting propped against a pillar with a soda (beer?) can and a funky straw. And it's brilliant.

Catherine Tate doesn't have a problem with the language either, but there are moments when her Beatrice lacks sparkle. She's good at the biting, sarcastic Beatrice of the beginning, but once she falls in love with Benedick, she starts acting rather Valley-Girl... which seems too young for her. As the story progresses and things start to get more serious, her Beatrice comes across like an emotional train wreck. In the scene where Benedick and Beatrice talk after Claudio has renounced Hero in front of the whole church, Beatrice goes from heartbroken and sad to giddy and girly when Benedick tells her he loves her, and then back to almost hysterically sad when she tells him to kill Claudio. To me, this feels more like the response of a 16-year-old than an adult. 

Even so, there are priceless moments with Catherine. Beatrice's "sick" scene -- where she comes to talk to Hero right before the wedding -- was hysterical. The sneezing every time someone said "Benedick" was perfect. And the bit towards the beginning when the Prince asks her to marry him is no end awkward, which is what it should be.

On top of all that, David Tennant and Catherine Tate obviously have chemistry. In their scenes together, their timing is delightful.

The best moment of the play (as seems to be the case with any production of Much Ado) is the bit where Benedick "overhears" the Prince, Claudio and Leonato talking about how much Beatrice loves him. The staging -- there's a rotating stage with three columns, and in this scene painters and buckets of paint -- was amazing. Benedick, while trying to listen in, ends up covered in paint, which is so amazingly funny that it almost detracts from the funniness of his lines at that part. But David, ever the showman, doesn't rush the lines. 

There are many other amazingly wonderful moments. But. But there's also enough costume issues and uncomfortably inappropriate bits that I can't recommend this to anyone, really. Catherine Tate always seems to be falling out of her top. At the costume party at the beginning, Benedick comes as... I don't know what. A hooker? Miss Piggy? It hides who he is all right, and as the audience you can totally believe that Beatrice didn't know who she was talking to... but I never really wanted to see David Tennant cross-dressing. The night before the wedding turns into a bachelor party and a bachelorette party, and even though they showed everything when Claudio "overhears Hero talking to a guy out her window," because of the setting, I wasn't convinced that there was enough motive there for Claudio's reaction. (My brain automatically went to "And the bachelor party was OK for you...?") (And because I'm trying to keep this blog family-friendly... I'm not even going to mention some of the other stuff.) Something else that could be a bit of a turn-off was the amount of "drinking" and "smoking" going on.

It's tragic that something with such potential has to be so raunchy. The casting for the whole thing is solid. Elliot Levey plays one of the best Don Johns I've ever seen -- totally believable, straight-laced, uptight, but a nasty piece of work. Claudio (Tom Bateman) is just the insecure, gullible type who would (a) fall in love with someone he doesn't know, (b) believe the worst of her, and (c) go off the deep end about it. John Ramm makes a great Dogberry, although the officers of the watch almost outshine him at times.

Here's hoping that someday good actors will do Shakespeare brilliantly without all the added junk. It can be done, and it should be done. Shakespeare deserves it.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Saint Crispin's Day...

OK. I'm a couple days late. But I love Harry's St. Crispin's Day speech too much to wait for another year to roll around. Enjoy....

Earl of Westmoreland. O that we now had here
But one ten thousand of those men in England
That do no work to-day!

Henry V. What's he that wishes so?
My cousin Westmoreland? No, my fair cousin:
If we are mark'd to die, we are enow 
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour.
God's will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.
By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,
Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;
It yearns me not if men my garments wear;
Such outward things dwell not in my desires:
But if it be a sin to covet honour,
I am the most offending soul alive.
No, faith, my coz, wish not a man from England:
God's peace! I would not lose so great an honour
As one man more, methinks, would share from me
For the best hope I have. O, do not wish one more!
Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,
That he which hath no stomach to this fight, 
Let him depart; his passport shall be made
And crowns for convoy put into his purse:
We would not die in that man's company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.
This day is called the feast of Crispian: 
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when the day is named,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours, 
And say 'To-morrow is Saint Crispian:'
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars.
And say 'These wounds I had on Crispin's day.'
Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot,
But he'll remember with advantages
What feats he did that day: then shall our names.
Familiar in his mouth as household words
Harry the king, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester,
Be in their flowing cups freshly remember'd. 
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember'd;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; 
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

I wish I was this articulate...

A friend sent me a link to a review of Anonymous... which is too lovely not to pass along. I was really quite surprised by how long it is... but it's worth every word.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Horrible Histories and Richard III

And while we're on the subject of Richard III....

PAE's Richard III (21 October 2011)

Despite the fact that I found Horrible Histories’ song about Richard III running through my head during about half of the production (and contradicting most of what I saw on stage), I really have no problem with Shakespeare’s failure to stick with historical fact in his play. Granted, it’s pro-Tudor propaganda. But it has a compelling story line and powerful characters and plenty of drama. And Shakespeare was writing drama, not textbooks.

Portland Actors Ensemble did what they do best: clear, simple, minimalistic (set-wise), good Shakespeare. The fact that they were performing indoors instead of in a park somewhere changed the game a little – giving us sound and lighting cues. The sound cues were ever so slightly too loud or, in most cases, ended rather abruptly, but I’m a sound snob, and most people probably wouldn’t care.

For some reason, this production of Richard III reminded me a lot of Macbeth. There’s even a bit where Richard says that he was fated to do what he did, and we think, “Fated or not, you’re still going down for it!” Richard’s duplicitous actions and side comments to the audience (especially at the beginning) also reminded me of Edmund in King Lear – “Look, I’m a horrible person and I’m OK with that. Just watch this!” Interestingly, Shakespeare wrote Richard III 14 years before both Lear and Macbeth.

Despite the questionable historical accuracy, the Richard in the play is a baddie, no doubt there. Nathan Dunkin does a fantastic job giving us the villain that we love to hate. He’s cruel, ruthless, bloodthirsty, manipulative and disgusting. How he worms his way into Lady Anne’s graces after he has killed her husband and her father is a bit of a mystery still. Sure, Richard is charismatic… but the scene where he woos her over her father’s dead body didn’t quite convince me. I wonder, though, if there’s any way to play it convincingly.

For a cast dominated by men, the women’s parts stood out exceptionally bright. Linda Goertz’s Margaret was chilling and tragic. Since I didn’t bother to even read a synopsis of the play before I came, and since my only previous knowledge of it was from the Ian McKellen movie, I started out at a bit of a loss as to who everyone was and where Margaret fit in to the whole thing. But it didn’t take long for me to catch on. And even without knowing her exact motivation at the beginning, there was no doubt of her complete hatred for everyone in the royal family. Allison Rangell was brilliant as Lady Anne; Margaret Darling played an amazing Queen Elizabeth; Paige Jones’s mother to Richard, Edward and Clarence was intense. Tons of props, too, to Kate Belden, especially for her very convincing job as the Prince of Wales.

The play was full of great moments. Matt Smith’s Clarence recounting his dream in the Tower was heartbreaking. The scene where the murderers (Arthur Delaney and Mark Rothwell) come to kill Clarence was funny, and yet deadly serious. It also brought up the theme of conscience, which reappears at the end when Richard dreams of the ghosts of all his victims. The dream sequence was wonderfully and disturbingly done. Dunkin slow progression from overconfidence to sheer terror might have been one of the best moments in the play. The scene in the chapel with Elizabeth, Margaret and the Dutchess (Richard’s mother), though subdued, still had an intensity that makes it hard to forget. And the pre-battle speeches of Richmond and Richard, set so closely together, sent shivers down my spine. Special props to Ty Boice, whose Richmond at the end was so completely good and wholesome and just what we want to root for to end Richard’s tyranny, but whose Tyrell (who Richard sends to kill the princes in the Tower) was so completely rotten. Brilliantly done.

I’m still pondering what exactly I walked away with when the evening was over (other than the dopey smile I usually leave the theater with). I think there was something significant about conscience in the whole thing… how conscience ignored or twisted for so long deserts you when you need it the most… something like that. A second (or third) viewing will help me sort that out. But that’s the wonderful thing about PAE’s productions – I can go as often as my schedule allows. Thanks, PAE!

Do yourself a favor and get to see this play. It runs through the first weekend in November at Concordia University. (Click here for dates and times.) There were only about 45 people in the audience the night I went, which is really tragic for the time and energy and effort everyone involved put in. They recommend a $5 donation to Boxy… but seriously, folks, $5 for that caliber of Shakespeare is a steal!

As usual, nicely done, everyone!

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Iconic moments and images

Say, completely hypothetically, you were asked to find in a Shakespeare play the moment that defines the whole thing. Where would you even start if, for example, you had to find the iconic image or moment in Hamlet? I'm not talking here about the moment where Hamlet the character is defined, but more like a moment that embodies the essence of the play.

The "alas, poor Yorick" moment gets a lot of press -- the whole skull-holding bit. I dare you to Google "Hamlet" and count the number of skulls on the first page of images alone. But when you come to that moment, is it really what Hamlet is all about? Yes, there's the preoccupation throughout with death... but at the gravedigger scene, the mood lightens and we don't really feel as much of the gravity of death as in the rest of the play. (In fact... I take issue with Sir Larry here: Hamlet says his "gorge rises" at the thought of the skull belonging to someone he knew and loved... and I kind of doubt he'd cozy up to it like this if he wanted to puke.)

What about the bit(s) with the ghost? After all, the whole thing starts on a dark and stormy night when a ghost appears. Doesn't that suggest that the rest of the play is basically a ghost story? (But then corollary question -- how do you graphically portray a ghost? Hmmmm.... Something to think about.)

How about Ophelia? There's definitely something going on with Hamlet's pretend madness and Ophelia's real insanity. Is there something with Ophelia that captures the whole play? Or is that too narrow?

If we pick one of Hamlet's soliloquies as the iconic moment / image, which one? There are a few to choose from! I find the "how all occasions do inform against me" bit to be more poignant than even the "to be or not to be" even though most folks know the latter better.

And don't even get me started on why Fortinbras is SO important to the play... because that could take forever.

But seriously... what do you think is the iconic image or moment in Hamlet? What sticks out in your mind the most? What do you feel sums up the whole thing? I haven't even mentioned the play within a play. Or the duel at the end. Or Gertrude. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern?

I have some ideas of my own, but I'm really curious -- What do you think? 

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Rest is Silence...

Well, my summer stint of Shakespeare in the Park ended on Labor Day, and I am now Shakespeare-less until October when PAE is doing Richard III. Very much looking forward to that.

In the meantime, I'm looking forward to getting my Tempest DVD (if I ever do... Amazon seems to doubt its release). In wandering through the Official Site I found clips of the music... strange. Very strange. And definitely more electric guitar / synthesized stuff than I'm positive I'm comfortable with. I'm still hoping it will all work together with the movie, and disparate pieces will make a powerful whole... but I'm also steeling myself for something... weird.

All this conjecture makes me wonder why everyone decides to do certain plays at the same time. In the last two years I have seen three live productions of the Tempest. Add the movie to that, and I think it's time to let the play rest for a while. I saw two separate productions of All's Well That Ends Well this summer, one in Pennsylvania and one here. In the spring, PSU did Hamlet; this winter, NWCTC is doing Hamlet... and next summer PAE is doing it also. I realize there are a finite number of plays (and an even more finite number of crowd-pleasers among that group), but it's not that finite a number. And the odd ones come up multiple times as often as the better known ones. NWCTC did Cymbeline last year, and in February PCS is doing it.

Maybe it's just a side-effect of stalking Shakespeare. I don't suppose it affects your average play-goer as much as it does someone who is committed to seeing as much Shakespeare as she possibly can. But I do still wonder how these things all seem to happen at the same time (relatively speaking).

Well... as soon as Amazon decides that the DVD of the Tempest really ought to be released sometime close to the Blu-Ray release (I'm so confused!), I'll post my full review. And then I hope to let this particular play rest for a while. Till then!

Thursday, September 1, 2011

60-Minutes With Shakespeare

Normally I stay as far away from the "Who Was Shakespeare Really?" debate. I find it irritating, lacking any kind of substantial proof on either side and, to be quite honest, just plain dumb. Then again, I've never been a huge fan of conspiracy theories.

But more than that, I feel like the debate completely misses the point. Why do we go on whinging about who wrote the plays, making up "evidence" on all sides and attempting to re-write history, when instead there are 38 plays out there full of life and energy and amazing, amazing thoughts? In one sense, who cares who wrote them, so long as they were written? The plays themselves live on, caring not a whit for who wrote them. They contain some of the most poignant insights into human nature. They still resonate today, 400 years later. They are truly remarkable.

On the other hand, if you like a little debate now and then, there's a really amusing and fairly informative "online conference" (whatever that means) called 60-Minutes-With-Shakespeare on the authorship issue. Sixty "experts" (I'm still working out what that means) were each asked a different question about the issue, and they each had one minute to answer. Some of the stuff is fairly basic; the debate has been going long enough that if you've been around Shakespeare-dom for any length of time, you've probably heard some of it. The best part is possibly Stephen Fry going on and on about the issue.

I will say that even though I come down on the Stratfordian side of things (as does this conference), I felt like the questions asked and scholars picked were rather one-sided. There is a debate out there and, like it or not, there are people on the other side. I didn't listen to all the questions, but it didn't feel like the opposition got much chance to defend themselves. Not that they have all that much to say, really... but still. I guess I'm just a journalist at heart and the whole "objective and balanced" thing is deeply ingrained. The better way to present the issue, IMNSHO, would be to let the Oxfordians et al hoist themselves with their own petard.

Question 41 is good, if you're looking for kind of an overview. Mom brought Question 28 up the other day, and Antony Sher answers it better than I did, that's for sure. And definitely check out Stephen Fry (Question 57).

Anyway... just another Random Shakespeare Whatsit in a long and strange list of Random Shakespeare Whatsits.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Be bloody, bold and resolute

I caved today and pre-ordered the Tempest. Since it had such a limited release in theaters, I haven't seen it yet... but I'm really looking forward to September 13th! Stay tuned for a review.

In the meantime, free outdoor Shakespeare seems to be winding down. There's only one more weekend of Much Ado... and I'm planning on going... for a fourth time. :-) It keeps getting better.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Review of Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Love’s Labour’s Lost (18 August 2011)

Love’s Labour’s Lost has never been one of my favorite plays. For one thing, it’s full of tedious poetry. I understand the point of this; after all, it’s a play about four guys trying to woo four girls, and during Shakespeare’s time, the way you did that was by writing the girls poetry. If, as in this story, the point is that the guys aren’t doing a very good job wooing the girls, the poetry is particularly troublesome.

But I didn’t have trouble with the poetry this time. The words were fresh and accessible and only slightly tedious from time to time. Unfortunately, the words were one of the better parts of this production.

Some background on the plot: The story is about four guys who decide to swear off women (as well as food and sleep and other necessities) for three years so they can study. Of course, the first thing that happens after they make this vow is that four women come on the scene, and the guys promptly fall in love. We would expect no less.

While there was plenty of wooing in this production, I completely missed the studying that should have been looming over their heads. There was more of a feeling that the guys were joining a Mason-esque secret Guys-Only society, not committing to a life of Academia. This could have been due to the fact that the stage was set up entirely as the outside of the castle (where most of the action happens, especially the bit with the girls, since girls aren’t allowed in the castle), and we never see what’s supposedly going on inside the walls. It could also be due to the picket-fence look and the No Girls Allowed sign.

The girls eventually point out (after mocking the guys mercilessly) that they can’t trust the guys’ vows of love since in making them the guys have broken their vows to study. At this point in the play, we pause for a moment and think, “Was that what they were doing this whole time? I forgot.”

Perhaps we forgot because we were so distracted over the way-over-the-top flirtatiousness of the women and the puppy-dog-like drooling of the guys. Seriously, it was too much. I don’t want to be a prude, but when the play starts out with the guys swearing off women by burning girly magazines (not without one last drool), and later when one of the gifts to the girls is a pearl-studded bra (worn in very plain sight), not to mention when the girls change in their tent, very much back-lit and visible, it’s too much.

Let me digress from the particulars of this production for just one moment: This is the kind of thing that gives Shakespeare a bad name. “But Shakespeare is crude and bawdy,” a friend told me when I complained about it at intermission. Yes. There are crude and bawdy things in Shakespeare (but not this much!), but when that’s all we see of him, when we can’t see anything else in the production for the bawdiness of it, then we’re missing out on one of the greatest students of human nature ever to set pen to paper. When productions play up the crudeness, it detracts from the main point of the play. And, believe me, in this instance it was played up. The girls aren’t written as floozies.

On a happier note, I vastly enjoyed seeing Gregory Linington (seen in Julius Caesar playing Cassius) play Berowne, the wittiest and possibly most grounded of the guys. Berowne’s wry humor and eloquent speeches in praise of love are so different from Cassius’s intense hatred and act-first-think-much-later attitude, and yet Linington was utterly convincing in each part.

The scene where the four guys overhear each other soliloquizing about how much he is in love is a perennial favorite of mine… and they did it hysterically. Their use of the stage was great – Berowne hid in the “balcony” area while the Ferdinand practically sat in the front row of the audience.

The set was visually quite appealing, with lots of bright colors – from the Kelly green Astroturf that covered the stage and the purple flowers everywhere to the ridiculous amounts of red and pink flower-petal confetti that seemed to fall at the least provocation. The whole thing had a very early-60’s feel. Whether that was the inspiration for the “freer morals” of the characters or visa versa, I’m not sure, but they certainly went together.

The point of the play is that keeping your word is more important than anything else. That point came across decently at the end of the play, but it had to shout to be heard over the din of the crudeness. This was definitely one time when the bawdiness was completely gratuitous, and pretty much spoiled the show for me. Yet again, Love’s Labour’s Lost comes up as not a favorite, but this time for completely different reasons.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Review of Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Julius Caesar (17 August 2011)

Julius Caesar was just another example of how the space you use impacts the production. The New Theater is small, and for this show, was set up in the round, a set of bleacher-like seats on all four sides, and entrances at the four corners. Our seats were right up at the top of one of the sets of seats, so I could look behind me and down into the backstage area. Brilliant.

This set-up made for an extremely minimalistic set (i.e. there wasn’t one)… or maybe they decided on an extremely minimalistic set and arranged the theater accordingly. The actors would occasionally drag out chairs from the wings… or on several occasions, a table. The lack of sets helped draw the audience into the action, taking away all other distractions and putting us right there with the conspirators.

Director Amanda Dehnert made an interesting decision in giving the part of Julius Caesar to a woman, and Vilma Silva did a wonderful job with it. Since the setting was modern, I didn’t have any problem with Caesar being a woman. In fact, her charisma with the crowds (played by the audience with a little help from the rest of the cast) gave her an Evita-esque feel. Since Caesar was a woman, the bit where Caesar’s wife tries to persuade him not to go to the senate on 15 March obviously had to be tweaked. They ended up giving Calpurnia’s dream to Caesar herself, and giving many of Calpurnia’s lines to Mark Antony. This, in turn, gave Caesar and Mark Antony a much more intimate relationship, which worked for me.

The way the stage was set up, the actors spent much of their “off-stage time” sitting practically in the audience. It felt very informal… and yet it wasn’t distracting at all. Lighting helped draw the attention away from them, but you always knew they were there… watching. And then, once Caesar was killed, her ghost spent the rest of the play on the sidelines, watching, occasionally interacting, especially when someone was killed, which happens a lot since this is a tragedy. Occasionally I would forget that she was there. Then, when I noticed her again, sitting in the audience or hovering somewhere, it gave me chills. It went a long way to emphasizing that this story is bigger than any one person or event, that the ghost of Caesar will never fully leave the conspirators alone, that the consequences of their actions are far-reaching, and that in the end, it was all for naught.

And while we’re on the subject of small, the cast for this character-heavy play was very small. The four main actors (playing Julius Caesar, Brutus, Cassius and Mark Antony) were augmented by seven other actors playing all the rest of the parts (24 of them!). It wasn’t always easy to keep all the parts sorted out, but at the time, it didn’t really matter, because the essentials were there. Who really cares, in the long run, if it’s Casca, Cinna, Trebonius or Decius Brutus after all? Danforth Comins played Mark Antony. During the first half I was a little disappointed, because Mark Antony wasn’t the hateful character I remembered him to be. But in the second half, from Antony’s speech at Caesar’s funeral on, he was a nasty piece of work. Gregory Linington was very good as Cassius, I thought. He was impulsive and a firebrand and intense.

At the end, as is the case with most of Shakespeare’s tragedies, the stage is literally filled with dead bodies. But over and above all the blood and death, the clever staging and simple but effective special effects, the message of the play stood out: Don’t try this at home; it doesn’t work. And when you think about the political unrest in Elizabeth’s time, it’s easy to see why the politically safe Shakespeare chose this story to tell.

Sunday, August 21, 2011


Just back from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival where I saw Julius Caesar and Love's Labour's Lost (reviews will come soon)... and also Pirates of Penzance, but that doesn't really count towards Shakespeare. That means that I have seen five separate productions of Shakespeare plays this month alone. But the even bigger landmark is that I have now seen 24 different productions of Shakespeare in the last two years. And I'm just getting started!!!

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Review of Portland Actors Ensemble’s Much Ado About Nothing (13 August 2011)

I was very thankful intermission came when it did. My cheeks hurt from smiling and laughing. And then, after intermission Master Constable Dogberry came on… and my cheeks hurt again.

This is Portland Actors Ensemble’s 42nd season, and seeing Much Ado About Nothing gives you a hint about why the group has been around so long. They obviously love what they do, and they do it very well.

Director Asae Dean set the play in Napoleonic times, as evidenced by the empire-wasted dresses and Master Constable Dogberry’s fantastic hat and coat. Despite the play’s more serious side, Dean has made sure the action moves right along and the humor is never far away. Just when our hearts are about to break for Claudio as he discovers the truth about Hero, Master Constable Dogberry chimes in with a reminder that he is “an ass.” Or when Leonato challenges Claudio to a duel, Antonio (Leonato’s brother, hysterically played by Patrick J. Cox) goes overboard attacking Claudio with his cane, and we can’t help but laugh.

There are so many good performances in this production that it is impossible to list them all. Sara Fay Goldman plays Hero, and plays her very well. But where she really shines is as Master Constable Dogberry, leading his watch of Keystone Cops, who look like they would be very much at home in the Pirates of Penzance. Goldman’s over-sized gestures and expressions could make the part funny, even without Dogberry’s mixed-up vocabulary, but together they are brilliant. Racheal Joy Erickson’s Beatrice is delightful. She is witty, but not too biting, smart and sassy, but also sweet and loveable. Arthur Delaney throws himself into the role of Claudio 110 percent. Jenny Newbry Waters plays Don Pedro’s brother, Don John, with marvelous intensity and villainy. And Patrick J. Cox’s little old man Antonio threatens to steal the scene every time.

The sets are quite minimalistic, but that doesn’t detract at all from the performance. The latticework trellises and folding chairs are simple but ample. My favorite sets, however, were the “trees” made out of green umbrellas adorned with lemons and leaves, and held by two of the actors. Brilliant!

Possibly the only drawback of this wonderful production is that the music is a bit rough. But when everything else shines so brightly, we can perhaps pardon a slightly-less-than-stellar song or two. Besides, conditions in the parks are not entirely favorable to music, and not everyone is comfortable singing a cappella.

Much Ado About Nothing runs through Labor Day weekend, and it’s only getting better. (The few rough edges I saw opening weekend were completely gone two weeks later.) Go see it, if you possibly can. It’s a wonderful afternoon of theater absolutely free. For dates and locations, visit

Friday, August 12, 2011

Review of Willamette Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well (6 August 2011)

This is Willamette Shakespeare’s third season of doing outdoor Shakespeare in the Portland area. Last year I got to see their Midsummer Night’s Dream… twice. This year they tackled one of Shakespeare’s lesser-known plays, All’s Well That Ends Well. There’s probably a reason this one is lesser known.

Even though the play itself has some serious flaws (in my opinion), Willamette Shakespeare did a great job. The WWII setting (the second time I’ve seen All’s Well done in this time period) fits crazy well with the play, what with the soldiers and wars going on in France and Italy. Helena’s Rosie-the-Riveter look was great. And uniforms are always good regardless. Anna Gettles did a stellar job with Helena, managing to make her somewhat sympathetic and likeable – no small feat with a character that is conniving and pushy and who will do anything to get her man. I didn’t feel like she was a scheming mastermind as much as someone who followed her love with puppy-dog-like affection and devotion.

Bertram (played by Kristopher Mahoney-Watson) is, of course, completely unworthy of such love. Kristopher could have gone even farther with the part, in my opinion. I didn’t always feel like he was 110% in the role. And yet, if he had gone all out, I’m not sure I would have believed Bertram’s change of heart at the end. So perhaps all’s well that ends well?

Sarah McGregor did a wonderful job as Diana, Bertram’s other love interest, but where she really shone was in her role as the King’s nurse. She may not have had any lines (or very few, I don’t remember), but her stage presence was hysterical.

Nathan Wright (Lavatch and other smaller parts) stole the scene every time he was on stage. His small gestures, facial expressions and the cheesy German accent he put on as the “Interpreter” made me laugh… and laugh… and laugh.

The play has issues – it ought to be rated PG-13 at least because of all its “adult content,” and for a comedy, it isn’t all that funny. But for all that Willamette Shakespeare made it quite watchable. I went this time thinking that maybe Shakespeare was being ironic with his title – after all, is all well that ends well? Should this be considered a happy ending? Are Helena and Bertram going to have a terrible life together? Does the ending somehow make all the deception and “infidelity” and scheming OK? This production gave me hope that perhaps, after a bumpy start, things would look up for the “happy” couple.

The show runs through August 21st. If you want to add this play to your list of “seen it and have a vague idea of what’s going on in it” plays, this is the way to do it. Check out Willamette Shakespeare’s web site for locations and times.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Review of Portland Shakespeare Project’s As You Like It (5 August 2011)

Director Michael Mendelson set As You Like It in France in the 1930’s. While there isn’t anything in the play itself that makes it a good fit for the pre-World War II era specifically, there also isn’t anything about that time that really detracts from the play either. The audience knew it was the 1930’s by the costumes and that the setting was France by the accordion music, which isn’t necessarily much to go on. But since the Forest of Arden is supposed to be a very “other” place, there was just enough setting and not too much.

I have so many good things to say about this production right off the bat. The casting was brilliant. The acting was amazing. Christi Miles as Rosalind was delightful, as were Darius Pierce (Touchstone), Andy Lee-Hillstrom (Silvius), Rhianna Walton (Audrey), Jake Street (Orlando), Dana Millican (Phoebe) and Melissa Whitney (Celia). Jill Westerby made a very melancholy and sympathetic if rather harsh Jacques. David Heath’s Adam melted my heart. Mary Kadderly’s music played on a single accordion and sung by the cast was perfect. The set’s mult-colored aspen trees were whimsical, enchanting and just plain spiffing.

Unfortunately the whimsy of the sets didn’t carry over to the rest of the play, which took a much darker approach to the story than I was completely comfortable with. I’m not saying there wasn’t comedy; the audience really enjoyed Touchstone’s antics, and the humor in Shakespeare’s words came out loud and clear. But the levity didn’t extend to what is really a very funny plot. I felt like we were asked to take very seriously ridiculous situations, like love at first sight (which the characters don’t even take all that seriously), the absurdities that occur with a cross-dressing heroine, love triangles, and someone so head-over-heels in love that he will post reams of love letters on trees.

Granted, the play itself has some quite serious and moving bits – Rosalind’s banishment, the bits between Adam and Orlando, Oliver’s repentance – and this production handled these bits very well. But Mendelson seemed to completely miss the fact that basically As You Like It is a fairy tale, and as such, should be handled lightly throughout. Fairy tales can be dark, but they seldom take themselves very seriously. They know they are absurd, and they don’t try to be anything else. Instead of a hysterical story with enough twists and turns and awkward situations to fill a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, Mendelson gave us a serious play with distressingly problematic situations and some very funny characters. This approach may work with some of Shakespeare’s other comedies (All’s Well That Ends Well, Much Ado About Nothing, Merchant of Venice, possibly even the Tempest), but for a play that is so absurdly whimsical as As You Like It, it fell flat.

All that aside, it was a very well-executed production, and I’ll be interested in seeing what else Portland Shakespeare Project comes up with in the future.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Shakespeare Haiku

A couple of weeks ago I was challenged to summarize a book in haiku. Since this is me we're talking about, I went for Shakespeare's plays. Here are the eight I have come up with so far. Can you name the plays?

Witty repartee;
webs of deceit make mischief
and yet true love wins.

Paralyzed by thought:
revenge his father's murder?
Everybody dies.

Exiled in forest,
Bad sonnets posted on trees
and happy endings.

Mischief-making sprite,
confusion among lovers --
Was it all a dream?

Four men, sworn scholars
foreswear their books in favor
of four femmes fatales.

King's madness caused by
Filial Ingratitude;
Everybody dies.

Ancient Rome teems with
Political intrigue and

Ancient Rome teeming
With political intrigue
And assignations.